Week 5 Chronicles: Hymns Old and New

Week 5 Chronicles is an occasional series on experimental worship formats whenever there is a fifth Sunday in a month.

Someone once said that a hymn is theology set to music. Others say that, in contrast to much of modern worship’s being deeply personal, a hymn is an expression of objective praise. That is not all together true, of course, because many hymns contain lyrics with a deep subjective element (for example, “Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine…”).

There is a certain quality to a song that makes it a hymn. Theological richness is one aspect. Another perhaps is a developed narrative which often puts story to theology. Yet another is a simplicity of structure.

Many hymns have stood the test of time (and presumably, like all categories of worship songs generally), some have not. Those that have endured have left a rich heritage of faith for the generations that have come before us. There are also great hymns being written today that will carve a legacy of fresh faith for the generations to follow.

Last Sunday, I had the privilege of leading an all-hymns worship set at Faith Community Church, Perth. It was a refreshing departure from the usual two fast songs, two slow songs worship mode we had become accustomed to. But whilst I was keen to design a set around hymns only, I thought that it would be apt to also recognise more contemporary songs which I would also characterise as hymns, such as Brooke Ligertwood’s “King of Kings”.

So, I called the set “Hymns: Old and New”.

It was an amazing time of worship. The singers and the music were on point. And the congregation was in full roar. It was one of my most enjoyable worship sessions in memory.

But memorising the lyrics was a killer. Sessions like these make me extremely grateful to our media team who run the confidence monitors.

The songs were:

Amazing Grace (acapella) (D-E)
This I Believe (The Creed) (A)
When I Survey the Wondrous Cross (D-E)
Nothing But the Blood (E)
What a Friend We Have in Jesus (E)
‘Tis so Sweet to Trust in Jesus (E)
In Christ Alone/The Solid Rock (E)
King of Kings (E)

Here is the recording.

Special thanks to the team for making it all happen.

Vox: Me, Ritchell, Lydia, Crystal, Joanna
Keys: Joe Lyn, Joseph
Guitars: Keegan, Marcus
Bass: Addie
Drums: Ephraim
Cello: Tiffany
Sound: Senny
Stage: KK
AV: Marco
Lights: Daniel

 

Music in Its Rightful Place: The Importance of Capacity and Context

In our last worship leader’s mentoring session, we talked about the role of music in worship. In the modern worship landscape, music and worship are almost synonymous. Of course, the more informed amongst us are keenly aware of the separation, but often struggle to articulate the difference or to hold the tension.

I posited seemingly disparate themes to the group:

1.  Music and the Heart of Worship

For many of us who were around in the 1990s, the role of music in worship was beginning to reach dizzying heights. The praise and worship movement which began with grassroots, organic musical expression began to mature until we got to the point where we began to exalt musicianship and excellence above heart. Musical servants gave way to worship artistes.

Against this background, Soul Survivor Church’s Mike Pilavachi wrestled with the idea that the church had become connoisseurs of worship, rather than participants in it. So, he sacked the band. Until  the church learnt how to bring its own offering of worship, there would be no musicians on the platform.

Out of this context, Matt Redman’s song “Heart of Worship” was born. It spoke out of, and to, a church in a particular season where worship did indeed become a spectator sport. Pilavachi challenged us to all be performers of worship – for the audience of One.

2.  The Power of Music

Music is inherently powerful, either within the context of worship or otherwise.

We all know this instinctively. When we watch a horror movie, the best way to dampen the suspense and sense of encroaching fear is to simply block your ears. Once that happens, the tension and stress of a scary scene is almost immediately lost.

Plato once said:

Give me the making of the songs of a nation, and I care not who makes its laws, I will control its people.

Historians say that the music of the Beatles, broadcast from the West, penetrated the Iron Curtain and helped spark the collapse of communism. Mikhail Gorbachev said “it taught the young people of the Soviet Union that … there is freedom elsewhere.” The music of the Beatles catalysed a political and cultural revolution. This is the power of music.

Pioneers of church worship recognise this power, too. Lamar Boschman said:

Music is one of mankind’s most fundamental avenues of communication, and one of the most successful because it transcends the conscious mind and reaches the subconscious.

Music affects us; it moves us; and it stirs our emotions.

In the context of worship, the question is: where does the power of music end, and the power of God’s Spirit begin?

3.  Music and God’s Presence

We often hear worship leaders say something like this: “we enter into God’s presence with singing”; or “God inhabits our praises”; or “as we play and sing, the Holy Spirit is going to move in our midst”.

The suggestion is that somehow, musical praise might somehow bring down God’s presence.

We might ask the question this way: did the sound of the trumpet bring down the walls of Jericho?

Harold Best says:

Whenever we assume that art mediates God’s presence or causes him to be tangible, we have begun to trek idol territory. Our present-day use of music as the major up-front device for worship is a case in point. We need to ask ourselves if we, as worship leaders, are giving the impression that we draw near to God through music or that God draws near because of it. Is music our golden calf?

Can we worship without music, and if so, why don’t we? Why do we put ourselves in the way of temptation?

4.  The Scriptural Impetus of Music in Scriptures

Despite the inherent dangers of music and the risk of idolatry, it would seem clear that the Bible mandates the use of music to accompany worship and sacrifice, even if the Bible doesn’t clearly define the relationship.

We see example after example, such as Miriam’s celebration song after the Exodus; David’s establishing of musicians and singers to minister around the Ark; the use of musicians when Hezekiah restored temple worship; Paul and Silas’ singing hymns in the prison. Even the largest book which sits in the middle of the Bible is a collection of sung verses.

Holding It All in Tension

So, how we do hold it all in tension? We know that music is Scripturally-mandated. We know it has something to do with God’s presence. And yet, we know it is dangerous and can often steal our hearts. It causes us to mistaken emotional hype and sensation with God’s tangible presence.

Music must be given its rightful place. Worship is first and foremost about the heart. Music is a tool. But it is an effective tool.

Here are some thoughts:

  • Music gives structure. It unifies the gathered church to sing one melody to one rhythm; it moulds us together out of our disparate thoughts and focuses us back to God.
  • Music engages us. It beckons us and calls us away from our own burdened souls; it moves us emotionally and gives voice to our innermost cries.
  • Music affects us. It moves our faith beyond the realm of the intellect to something which is felt.

Ultimately, music is not the end of worship, God is. Music and the musicians are merely servants.

Good Music versus Bad Music

If music is an important tool (and I think it is), then the question is: what of good music and bad music?

In my church, we are blessed with a pretty decent group of some 50 or so musicians and singers and we are always pushing ourselves to only get better at our craft. You might say, well, if music isn’t the end game, should we care how excellent we are?

And what of the small church down the road with hardly any musicians, all of whom have plenty of heart but less so musical competence?

What of quality?

This is where, as my wife pointed out to me (because she always has lots of revelation) that context and capacity matter.

If music is used to serve the people, as no doubt it must, then we must ask: what people are we serving? If we are serving a church full of musicians in Nashville, then mediocre garage band quality might just not cut it. Even now, amongst our church musicians, some of them get easily distracted with the slightest hint of off-pitched singing or imprecise rhythm. (Thankfully, God has gifted me with musical dullness so I can’t hear all the imperfections!).

On the other hand, a small home group will be much more forgiving on the musical technicalities, and be easily led by a display of heartfelt (but off-tune) praise.

Capacity then looks at what you, as a church, can afford, and what level of skill, as an individual, you can offer. As worshippers, we ought to only give God the best offering we can. If you have more to give, then give more. If you can afford a more lavish set up, then by all means bring it before the Lord as your sacrifice of praise. Don’t skimp on quality or even expense. But be prudent about it. If your congregation can’t discern the difference, then you might be a better steward to deploy your resources to other ministries which serve the congregation better.

I like how Mike Cosper, in his book Rhythms of Grace thinks about the role of music in worship. He uses the catchphrase, “Worship: One, Two, Three”. He says:

  • worship has one author and object, that is God;
  • worship has two contexts, that is, worship scattered as we go about worshipping in our everyday lives; and worship gathered, whenever the church comes together to instruct and edify each other;
  • worship has three audiences: God, the church and the watching world.

When we think about worship with three audiences, instead of One, context and capacity becomes all the more important. We understand that our musical offering is first and foremost service unto God, but we must also hold it in balance as it serves and teaches our fellow brothers and sisters, and then as it draws the seekers amongst us. Seeker-friendly and Spirit-friendly are not mutually exclusive, but part of the one continuum.

Worship for the audience of One was right for its time, but I believe now, faithful musical offering requires us to balance capacity and context to serve three audiences.

Tools for the Non-Musical Worship Leader

I was recently reading Chris Falson’s old book Planted by the Water and came across this (at page 150) which I thought was interesting:

It is not essential for a worship leader to be a skilled musician. A reliance on skill and talent hinders the move of the Holy Spirit. Some of the best worship leaders I have seen have been people with no understanding of music theory but whose open heart and willingness to serve made them a wonderful guide for others to follow. Having said that, a skilful musician who lays his or her gifts at the Lord’s feet has the potential to break new ground in worship as well as to gather, nurture and mould other gifted people into a ministry team.

I am encouraged by this. The only formal music training I have ever had was in primary school, when they taught me to play the recorder. I still visualise notes on the staff using “FACE” and “Every Good Boy Deserves Fruit”. But as Chris Falson says, skilled musicianship is not essential to the task of worship leading.

I always come back to Kirk Franklin, a guy who doesn’t sing but leads worship by simply saying things at the right places. He’s so good at what he does that he has live worship albums, on which he doesn’t sing a single note!

So here are five tools for those of us non-musical worship leaders which can help us lead better:

1. The Word of God. Sounds obvious, but it’s often lacking in the modern worship movement which emphasises so much on skill and artistry. Yet, letting the “Word of God dwell richly amongst us” is a Biblical command as we sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs (Col 3:16). We need to understand how the message of Christ can be “read” (or better still, “heard”) through our choice of songs. A clear Biblical message and theme should be deployed each time we lead. Scripture reading and scriptural praying should also be part of a worship leader’s repertoire.

2. Musical Taste. So, a worship leader need not be skilled in music theory, but it is hard to avoid the fact that worship leading entails an appreciation of music. The unmusical worship leader should develop musical taste by listening to a wide range of musical styles (at the very least, worship music from different eras of the church) to get an understanding of what works musically and what doesn’t.

3. Humble Teachability. I rely a lot on my musical director. Having developed (hopefully) some semblance of taste, and a good handle of how to put songs together, I have to approach worship with an open hand and take on board suggestions by those who are more skilled at music than I am. Over time, as trust has been built with my musicians, I am able to allow the music director and the band to run the musical side of the worship after I set an overall vision and flow of the worship set. Remember, no matter how good your idea, don’t be too precious about it. Collaboration with musicians not only leads to better musical results, but also builds a sense of ownership amongst your team.

4. Stage Presence. A worship leader needs to be able to connect with the gathered congregation and influence them to follow. So, a worship leader needs to communicate the message through the things they say, their expression and their gestures. Make plenty of eye contact with the congregation, and smile! My worship director tells me that one of my greatest gifts is my “off-time bouncing”. If you want the congregation to be expressive in their worship, you need to lead in expressiveness.

5. Off-Stage Presence. Worship leading starts before you even get on stage. Real leadership begins in your relationship with the congregation and how you model your life when you’re not leading worship. Get involved in the life of your church and help out whenever you can, like packing up chairs, going to prayer meetings, actively participate in cell group etc. Then when you lead worship, people will happily follow you, not because you are awesome, but because they like you.

What other tools can you think of which should be in the non-musical worship leader’s toolkit?

From the Archives: Sometimes Bossanova Just Happens – Lessons from Your Worst Nightmare

Today, I thought I’d share one of my favourite posts so far…

I love this clip of Martin Smith leading worship, because it goes to show that no worship leader is immune from the silliest of mistakes:

I remember one time when I was leading worship and we had just transitioned into the song “At the Cross”. As we started singing, it was clear to me that something or someone was clearly out of tune. So I looked down at the keyboardist and gave him a real dirty look. I was sure it was him. As we were singing through the first verse, I was thinking to myself “come on, mate, we’ve rehearsed this. We’re meant to go up to the key of A. When we do the debrief later, we’re going to have some words!”

And then I began to ask: why is the bassist off as well? Am I the only one who is going by what we rehearsed? Why can’t anyone else seem to hear properly? And then, towards the end of the chorus, I looked down and realised, to my horror, that it was me! I had forgotten to capo my acoustic guitar and was playing (and singing) in the key of G whilst else was in A as we had planned. I nearly died…

At that moment, I was humbled.

I take comfort in the fact that something similar happened to Martin Smith! I also take comfort in the fact that Martin Smith also thought it was everyone else before he realised he had turned on the bossanova on his keyboard!

We are never immune from mistakes, no matter how hard we prepare. Making mistakes is part of life, but the important thing is to learn from them.

So, here are some lessons I’ve learnt from episodes like these:

Firstly, humility comes before honour. (Actually I stole this phrase from Faith Community Church’s Statement of Ministry Culture, but I like it, so I’m replicating it here). It’s very easy to look around at others’ mistakes, particularly when you are working in a team. It’s much harder to see your own shortcomings. Sometimes, God graces us with bossanova moments so that it is entirely clear with whom the mistake lies. After you look around to the drummer, or the bassist, or stare evils at the sound guy, you have to conclude that no one else was to blame but your fat finger touching the wrong button.

Secondly, we should put in place protocols to avoid repeats of the mistake. I was talking to my former music director Addie Choon recently and he said that bossanova moments happen way too often to keyboardists. So what he does is that he has his finger ready on the volume slide to bring the sound right down if any hint of bossanova appears. Or some keyboardists start with the volume on zero to gently slide it up. Especially during ministry times.

Thirdly, sometimes it’s good to “bite the bullet” and not take yourself so seriously. In my younger days, if I started singing in the wrong key, or if the song was pitched too high, I would keep pressing on like it was all part of the plan, even though the strain in my voice made it utterly clear that it definitely wasn’t part of the plan. Now, I’m quite happy to say, “oops, sorry guys, let’s just start again”. You’d be surprised how forgiving the congregation is. In fact, that moment usually results in the congregation throwing their support behind you as they cheer and clap to encourage you; their eyes are opened to the fact that the worship isn’t a superstar. Suddenly you don’t have to try so hard to lead them into worship because you are one of them!

Lastly, I wonder whether the Spirit of God is more robust and less prone to offence than we think. Often, we act like the Holy Spirit only works and moves in the quiet times when strings are playing solemnly and thickly in the background. But the Spirit of God also brings joy, even in the midst of our greatest embarrassments.

Have you, as a worship leader, had a bossanova moment? Share it with us below.

An Adventure in Missing the Point

Today Ray Badham taught about building a worship team at Arrows College.

We were asked to brainstorm along the lines of who the stakeholders were in our worship service.

One by one, the students called out ‘worship leader’, ‘musicians’, ‘vocalists’, ‘sound technicians’, ‘dancers’, ‘visuals’ etc. I thought I was being pretty savvy by calling out ‘senior pastor’.

Funnily enough, it took us ages before the three main stakeholders were identified – ‘God’, ‘the congregation’ and the ‘unsaved’. Suddenly there was a gasp of recognition.

Talk about the wood for the trees! At a time in history when the church is recovering ground on the arts, today was a timely reminder for us to realign ourselves with what’s important; to not get too caught up in music and production at the expense of true worship.

Audition Success!

I was really thrilled yesterday to get an email yesterday as follows:

Congratulations! You have been successful in the FCC worship audition. Welcome to the team!

It was a good thing my wife ordered me some in-ear earphones from Catch of the Day!

My joining the Faith Community Church worship team is significant to me for at least three reasons.

First, I believe that the church family is not only intended to be a source of support, encouragement and spiritual growth, but it should also play an important role in releasing you into your spiritual destiny.

Second, being part of a church ministry helps you get plugged into the life of the church and to tap into the heartbeat of the church. Since we’ve joined FCC, we’ve tried to get involved in as many different activities within the church as possible. But it’s ad hoc and different to actually being part of something ongoing where you can see see sustained growth, face challenges and share triumphs with a group of people with the same heart amd goal within a ministry.

Third, the skills and anointing of a worship leader can only be properly honed in the context of a local church. This is where worship is at its most raw and honest. There is no hype of a conference, or bright lights or inflated faith. Just real people going through the challenges of life and seeking to encounter God through joys, disappointments, triumphs and defeats.

By that same token, I’ll be rostered soon on backing vocals. I actually don’t believe I should be leading worship in the short term because to successfully lead worship in a local church, you have to get to know your congregation before you can pastor them into God’s presence. You need to know what makes them tick, what season they are going through and their corporate sentiments.

I’m looking forward to knowing FCC a lot better. For now, I’m really grateful to be part of a worship team again. Time to dust off those vocal chords!

Sushi and the Art of Worship Leading

Over the weekend, I watched a documentary about the world’s greatest sushi chef called Jiro Dreams of Sushi.

Whilst I like to stay on top of food trends, this was the first time I had ever heard of Jiro Ono.

Jiro is an 85 year old sushi master who owns a 10-seater restaurant in the Ginza subway station in Japan. Week in, week out, he repeats the same routine of sushi making. He doesn’t like to take holidays. He only takes a break to attend emergencies, such as funerals. His whole life is consumed by the obsession of making sushi and to constantly make better sushi.

Which is why his is the only sushi restaurant to ever be awarded three Michelin stars. And yet, there is no wine list, five-star table service or even a washroom inside his restaurant. Patrons may book up to 12 months in advance to sit there for half an hour to eat 20 pieces of sushi per sitting at the equivalent cost of $300. This makes Jiro’s restaurant the most expensive Michelin star restaurant in the world.

Until I watched this film, I never thought of sushi-making as an art form. But in Jiro’s mind, what he creates today needs to be continually surpassed by what he creates tomorrow.

After 50 years of relentlessly pursuing his craft, he says “I will continue to climb trying to reach the top… but no one knows where the top is… Even at my age, in my work, I haven’t reached perfection.”

What does Jiro’s sushi dream have to do with worship leading?

Having watched the documentary, I was impressed with this lesson: never think that you have arrived because there’s always more to learn. It is a posture of humility which is the foundation of great leadership.

Last year, I left a church in which I was serving for over 20 years. In that time, I was deeply involved in the leadership of the worship ministry. I have to admit that when you are in a very secure position for a long period of time, you can become quite arrogant. In a way, I thought that I had it all figured out. I thought I was one of the most competent worship leaders in church. Okay, I never said this out loud, because that would be pride. But inwardly, that was probably the attitude that I had.

In the last few weeks, I have discovered things that have shaken me from my lofty heights.

I now attend Faith Community Church. And the level of musicianship is awe-inspiring. Last night, as part of the support acts for Jayesslee’s Perth concert, some of the FCC worship team performed some songs and I had to say, I thought their performances rivalled the main act! And I thought, wow, these guys haven’t even reached their peak yet and they are going to be the next generation leaders of FCC’s worship ministry!

And then, there is Converge. I have had the privilege to work with some musicians and worship leaders from other churches and they are absolutely out of this world.

And I have been humbled. I don’t think I would even dare place myself anymore on the higher end of the bell curve. Somewhere in the middle is probably more fitting. Definitely, what I have learnt from working with other churches is that it changes your perspective. There are always going to be worship leaders better than you! If nothing else, working with other churches inspires you to look beyond your own church world, to realise there is so much more out there and so much more you need to learn!

I think that as worship leaders, we cannot ever rest on our laurels. We need to keep learning, improving, climbing the mountain as it were and understanding that we never know where the top is. If we approach our ministry heart first (not skill first!) then we will always be in relentless pursuit of excellence and improvement.

1 Cor 3:9 ff (MSG) says this:

…You are God’s house. Using the gift God gave me as a good architect, I designed blueprints; Apollos is putting up the walls. Let each carpenter who comes on the job take care to build on the foundation! Remember, there is only one foundation, the one already laid: Jesus Christ. Take particular care in picking out your building materials. Eventually there is going to be an inspection. If you use cheap or inferior materials, you’ll be found out. The inspection will be thorough and rigorous. You won’t get by with a thing. If your work passes inspection, fine; if it doesn’t, your part of the building will be torn out and started over. But you won’t be torn out; you’ll survive—but just barely.

What sort of materials are you building with? Good quality, excellent materials, or second-best materials of inferior quality? We may not ever become the best, but we definitely should be offering to God our best. His sacrifice deserves at least that much.

If I’m still leading worship when I’m 85, I hope that I’d be able to say that I’m still climbing, not knowing where the top will be.

What Type of Worship Leader Are You?

Years ago, I came across John de Jong’s catalogue of different types of worship leaders (from his book Riding the Storm), which I thought was rather amusing. It’s tongue-in-cheek, but in the process, he makes some quite incisive observations about worship leading methodology.

So here are the categories, but I want to just make the disclaimer that any resemblance to real people is purely coincidental:

1. The Cheerleader

  • After a hearty welcome, the cheerleader likes to encourage the congregation with a brief but uplifting “thought of the day” before launching into a bone-jarring praise song.
  • He’s not too concerned about musical finesse; most songs feature scrubbed acoustic guitar (slightly but annoyingly out of tune).
  • He is an eternal optimist and his approach involves much encouragement to “give God the glory” followed by frequent clap offerings.
  • He often works up a sweat and is particularly fond of bouncing.
  • It’s generally a good hour before he lets the pastor onto stage for the announcements.

2. The DJ

  • The DJ is the cheerleader’s brother but attends a different church (again, any resemblance to real life is entirely coincidental! – I know my brother will read this and he’s going to say something to me.)
  • He loves to talk especially between songs.
  • He often prays extemporary prayers that are shallow, if not trite, using many well-worn cliches.
  • He likes to start the service by explaining in detail why worship is really important.
  • Before singing the first song, he reads a scripture that the Lord gave him that morning as he was cleaning his teeth.
  • His eyes are closed most of the time but he frequently opens them to check that that congregation is paying attention.
  • At the end of the song, he will remind the congregation why the have just finished the last song before helpfully explaining why the next song was chosen.

3. The Dictator

  • The dictator is essentially a control freak.
  • He is a bit like the cheerleader with all the compassion squeezed out of him.
  • He is sometimes a serious, domineering, priest-like figure who seldom smiles yet often stares with piercing eyes at the congregation or he wears the mask of super-spirituality, retreating behind a veil of mystical communion.
  • He often exhibits a breathtaking command of Scripture.
  • He might accuse some of the congregation of failing to worship with sufficient abandon.
  • Whilst he is a capable musician, he seems almost unable to enjoy himself and unable to relinquish control to allow people to find their own pathway to Jesus.
  • He likes hymns with challenging lyrics rather than musical or artistic beauty.
  • Instead of gently leading people into worship, he will march boldly ahead expecting them to follow.

4. The Transcendental Meditator

  • He stands at the front with his eyes firmly closed most of the time.
  • His voice is not very loud but he’s a pretty good (acoustic) guitarist having spent hours in his bedroom working out new chord inversions.
  • Sometimes when he leads worship, the congregation is unaware that the service has started.
  • He loves working in a team, but sometimes the musicians around him get bored.
  • Songs seem to go on forever as he gently sways.
  • He cannot stand shallow praise songs, but instead prefers repetitive dirges that lead him towards Nirvana as the congregation dreams of coffee and doughnuts.
  • He likes the sound of the phrase “deep calls unto deep” but hasn’t a clue what it means.

5. The Small Animal in Bright Lights

  • The small animal in bright lights is a pretty girl (remember, this is John de Jong’s words, not mine!).
  • Someone once told her that if she fixed her eyes on a point on the back wall just above the last pew, it would look as though she was making eye contact with people without actually having to look at them. What they failed to tell her was that it’s advisable to change the spot occasionally, so now she looks like a rabbit caught in headlights.
  • Her mum says she has a really nice voice, but few people have actually heard it.
  • She’s a real sweetie and no one minds that they can’t actually hear her sing.
  • When she’s feeling really relaxed, she closes her eyes and lifts one hand in worship.

When I first read this list, I had to have a bit of a chuckle and I mentally slotted in the worship leader friends I had into the different categories.

I’m a definitely a cheerleader, but not attractive enough to be a real cheerleader! Yes, I do encourage people to “give God the glory” and I really, really love clap offerings. In fact, I can’t stand a worship set not ending with a rousing clap offering! And I bounce too. When it gets really exciting, I might even … twirl. Yes, that’s right, twirl! There I said it!

So, what type of worship leader are you: cheerleader, DJ, dictator, transcendental meditator or deer caught in headlights? Post your comments below.

Pressing In

Wow, it’s been a number of days since my last post. I’ve had a pretty busy week leading up to a trial last Friday. I haven’t conducted a trial in ages so I was a bit nervous, but I’m glad to say that God is good and we won the case, with the Tribunal giving its decision right there on the spot. My client was so happy, he cried! So I thank God for his wisdom and guidance, and now, I can go back to finding some more time to write.

In an earlier post (Encountering Grace), I shared on how re-encountering the grace of God transformed my perspective on, and approach to, worship. In another post (Holy Worship Team, Batman), I shared on how this puts into question how we qualify people in terms of whether they can serve on the worship team.

In this post, I want to explore, in the context of the transforming grace of worship, the concept of “pressing in”.

So, here’s the scene. The service is about to start and the worship leader says something like this: “This morning, let’s not stay on the outside, let’s press in to God in worship.”

Or maybe, halfway through the set, the worship has been a bit “heavy going” and the worship leader says this: “The presence of God is here. Don’t miss out. I want to encourage you to really press in and encounter Him”.

At its most innocent and legitimate, the idea of “pressing in” to God is a picture of our posture and attitude towards God in worship: an individual approaches worship by focussing all of their attention on God and the process of expressing praise to Him. Viewed in this way, it is a legitimate exhortation for every member of the congregation to adopt such a posture.

But more often than not, the worship leader tells you to “press in” because they are frustrated. I say this from my own experience. I don’t know how many times I’ve led worship and the congregation just seems flat. I would start with some gentle cajoling, such as “let’s sing that again from our hearts” to something a bit more forceful: “let’s lift up our praise, let’s really worship Him”. And then, when all else fails, I resort to “*small sigh*, C’mon guys. We have a great privilege of accessing God’s presence today. Let’s not miss this moment. We’ve got to press in….”

In such a context, “pressing in” is another piece in the worship leader’s armoury to try to “guilt” the congregation into worship.

The idea of “pressing in” can be traced to the Old Testament approach to, and progression of, worship. The OT pattern was based on going from the “outer courts”, to the “inner courts” (or holy place) and finally, finishing up at in the “Holy of Holies”. Theologians have suggested that the outer courts represent the flesh (which we can appeal to using “rah-rah” fast songs); the inner courts represents the soul (songs which appeal to the emotion); and the Holy of Holies is where our spirit engages with God.

As a model and theory, this has its limitations.

Firstly, I believe the Old Testament Tabernacle of Moses has been well and truly supplanted by the New Testament pattern. When the Samaritan woman tried to engage Jesus on the correct mode and site for worship, Jesus’ response was startling: in effect, Jesus said that worship wasn’t going to happen at this temple or that temple, using this ritual or that ritual. Rather, He said in verse 24: “God is a Spirit (a spiritual Being) and those who worship Him must worship Him in spirit and in truth (reality)”.

Secondly, the equating of “fast songs” with the “flesh” seems to suggest that fast songs are less spiritual than “slow songs”. That definitely was the way I used to think. In fact, the first few times I led worship on a Sunday, I used to eschew fast songs because they were carnal songs. If you really want to worship, you should use slow songs. But I don’t think that delineation is fair, nor is it scriptural. If worship involves all that we are, dancing and clapping in a fast song is just as spiritual an expression as bowing in a slow song.

Thirdly, the concept of born-again believers being on the outside is clearly no longer the New Testament norm. Hebrews 10:19-22 says:

Therefore, brethren, since we have full freedom and confidence to enter into the [Holy of] Holies [by the power and virtue] in the blood of Jesus,

By this fresh (new) and living way which He initiated and dedicated and opened for us through the separating curtain (veil of the Holy of Holies), that is, through His flesh,

And since we have [such] a great and wonderful and noble Priest [Who rules] over the house of God,

Let us all come forward and draw near with true (honest and sincere) hearts in unqualified assurance and absolute conviction engendered by faith (by that leaning of the entire human personality on God in absolute trust and confidence in His power, wisdom, and goodness), having our hearts sprinkled and purified from a guilty (evil) conscience and our bodies cleansed with pure water.

This verse actually addresses the issue: we are on the “outside” only because we believe we are. In fact, however, we are under a new covenant with a new priest whose blood (not the blood of goats and bulls that cleanses temporarily) has made us holy so that we may approach God with utter confidence and (as the author of Hebrews puts it) with “unqualified assurance”.

Fourth, and this flows on from the previous point, our sins have been dealt with – fully! Our sins are no longer a barrier between us and God. I used to be taught that my sins separate me from God, so I should always confess my sins and “keep a short account”. There’s nothing wrong with that practice (in fact it is a good practice, but I now believe that our sins don’t separate us from God because He has already imputed into us Christ’s righteousness. So as worship leaders, we used to say, “let’s examine our hearts before we approach God in worship”. But I believe the paradigm should now be the opposite: as we worship, we are transformed.

In Isaiah 6, the prophet said that “he saw the Lord” in worship. The result of that was that he became acutely aware of his shortcomings and the angel came and touched his lips with the coal. He saw God and was transformed. Similarly, in Luke 7, Jesus was anointed by “the sinful woman” in the house of Simon the Pharisee. When you read that passage, you will note that Jesus never stopped the woman from approaching Him in worship. Ironically, it was established religion that said “does Jesus know who is approaching him?” The result of that woman’s worship was Jesus’ saying to her “Your sins are forgiven”.

We don’t cleanse ourselves in order to approach God; we worship and then we are transformed!

How then do we approach God? And how do worship leaders encourage the congregation to engage? I believe the key is in what Matt Redman used to say: “revelation demands a response”. A revelation of the greatness and goodness and faithfulness of God naturally causes our hearts to stir up in a praise response.

Worship leaders should encourage worshippers to focus on the bigness of God, rather than on a person’s own actions and expressions. The latter is a response in works and human effort, the former is a response to the grace of God.

Let’s approach God with a confident expectation of his goodness and grace. Should we still “press in”? By all means. But like the author of Hebrews says, this has nothing to do with our position in Christ and our place in the progression of worship. “Pressing in” should all be about “the leaning of our entire human personality on God in absolute trust and confidence in His power, wisdom, and goodness” because we know we are already forgiven and cleansed and that there is no longer any barrier to His presence. Let us draw near to Him with the full assurance of faith!